January 23, 2017
By Robert C. Koehler
The icon’s day has come and gone, and — oh, the irony — eight people were fatally shot in Chicago on his weekend. Another eight were shot during a Martin Luther King rally and celebration in Miami.
God knows how many more died this past weekend: around the country, around the world.
An enormous wrong called human violence continues to roll across Planet Earth, but we bring less understanding to it than we had 50 years ago, when King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City and stood courageously against the war in Vietnam.
“We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation,” King said in his electrifying and disturbing speech, which merged the movement for civil rights and social justice with the growing national outrage against war. “The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. . . .
“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.”
As I say, this was 50 years ago: April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated. And tomorrow is still today.
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. . . . We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
Consider the dystopia on display in this Chicago Sun-Times story about the eight fatal (and 24 non-fatal) shootings across Chicagoland on the weekend of Jan. 14-16. Each fatality in this irony-permeated account is meticulously listed, along with the street and block on which it occurred, the precise time of day (1:13 a.m., 6:55 p.m., etc.) and, my God, the lethal bullet’s entry location on each victim’s body. Thus we learn that there were two chest wounds, a head wound, head and chest wounds, abdomen and face wounds, and three multiple gunshot wounds. That’s it. No larger understanding is conveyed, no outrage, no despair. What’s the point?
The story ends: “Nine people were shot in Chicago last weekend.”
This is no fantasy dystopia but the world we actually live in — the “tomorrow” of King’s passionate warning cry half a century ago: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” he wrote in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? “Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”
We’re watching his prescience come to life, even as we honor him — and in the process, ignore him. As I wrote a decade ago: “The public accolades ladled upon this fallen leader embalm him in sentimentality, in some glass case in the pantheon of national heroes, next to Washington, Lincoln, Elvis, et al. Then once a year we cherry-pick a memorable phrase here or there (‘I have a dream’ comes to mind for some reason), as though the words are frozen in history, part of a time when there was struggle and disagreement and prejudice.
“The shocking thing about King is that his words are as alive and unsettling as they’ve ever been.”
So the best we can do is try to pull them loose from yesterday’s context and look at them, absorb them and embody them in today’s. If anything, however, the wall of cynicism that prevents his words from entering the American political consciousness is more formidable than ever.
“This I believe,” he said in his Riverside address, “to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
“And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. . . . (It) is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”
These words tear me open, not simply because of the truth they manifest but because, despite that truth — wrenchingly apparent as it is in the wake of 50 further years of U.S. militarism — they still fail to penetrate the wall that separates policy from sanity.
Hear the broken cries of those who join ISIS? Of course not. But Erik Prince, mercenary extraordinaire, founder of Blackwater (and brother of Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos), apparently has the ear of President-elect Donald Trump, and, as Jeremy Scahill reports, has been pushing for the Trump administration to “recreate a version of the Phoenix Program, the CIA assassination ring that operated during the Vietnam War, to fight ISIS.”
And the global dystopia rolls on.
I repeat: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”
Welcome to tomorrow.
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.